Maple Leaf Foods plant dirty, even after cleaning: reports

A top-to-bottom scrubbing after a deadly listeriosis outbreak apparently didn’t fully cleanse a Maple Leaf Foods plant of mould, slime and meat debris, newly released documents show.

OTTAWA — A top-to-bottom scrubbing after a deadly listeriosis outbreak apparently didn’t fully cleanse a Maple Leaf Foods plant of mould, slime and meat debris, newly released documents show.

Inspectors found a troubling lack of hygiene at the company’s Toronto facility just weeks after it reopened last year from a temporary shutdown for cleaning, according to inspection reports.

Maple Leaf says inspectors were looking more carefully at the plant after the listeriosis crisis, so naturally they found more problems.

And the company’s chief food-safety officer, Dr. Randy Huffman, said Maple Leaf put in place more than 200 new standard operating procedures after the listeriosis outbreak but it took workers time to learn them. He said that through that learning process the company has continuously improved its approach to food safety.

Huffman said there was never any reason to be worried about the safety of the food produced at the plant.

The head of the federal food inspectors union said, however, that some of what the inspectors reported seeing at the time were “things that people should be concerned about.”

Maple Leaf closed its Bartor Road deli-meat plant for nearly a month last year after its products tested positive for a bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. Twenty-two people died and many more fell ill after eating tainted meat from the plant.

During the plant’s closure, the company invited television crews to film workers in what looked like hazardous-material suits dismantling and sterilizing equipment, while the other areas were coated in a foamy disinfectant.

Hundreds of employees also spent hours in training sessions learning about cleanliness and the bacteria.

Company president Michael McCain held a news conference when the plant reopened on Sept. 18, 2008, and acknowledged the experts who worked tirelessly to sanitize the facility and its many meat slicers.

But during a checkup less than a month later, Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff found mould on the walls and floor, slime underneath a meat-trimming table, leftover meat on wheeled container bins and rusty equipment.

The infractions are listed on an inspection report dated Oct. 10, 2008. They include:

• slime on part of the meat-trimming table in the curing room;

• meat debris on two steel container bins and unidentified debris on the brine tank in the curing room;

• a moist and mouldy cardboard sheet on the base of a skid in the curing room that holds bags of salt;

• mouldy caulking on the walls of the meat-defrosting room;

• a stack of dirty, mouldy and broken skids left in the frozen packoff room during cleaning;

• food debris on knife holders, floor and meat containers in the formulation room; and,

• rust on equipment used to process mock chicken.

The Canadian Press obtained that inspection report and others under the Access to Information Act.

The food-inspection agency issued a corrective-action request during the Oct. 10 checkup. Corrective-action requests state the nature of the problem and give the company up to 60 days to fix it.

When the inspector returned on Oct. 20, the mould was gone and many other problems had been fixed.

But another report says during visits on Oct. 20 and 21, an inspector watched as “an employee in a grey jacket lifted a floor broom over a finished food product conveyor belt during operation to sweep in between the conveyors.”

Then on Oct. 22, the inspector saw a worker using a fork lift to move ready-to-eat link sausages from the cooler to a line for packaging. The report notes the meat at the bottom part of the lift “was not protected for the potential wheel over spray or splash cross contamination.”

The inspector deemed the lift “as being in unsanitary condition,” and also noticed a “green chemical liquid” pooling on the floor in the area where the machine was stored.

In subsequent checkups that month, the inspector reported that the rust had been sandblasted from the mock chicken equipment, and other problems had been fixed.

But more issues turned up during another visit on Dec. 12.

The inspector found small chunks of meat on a conveyor belt and on the buttons that operate it.

A worker struggled to clean the equipment as the inspector looked on.

“He cleaned it three times to bring it to acceptable level, first two times he missed pieces of meat on the conveyor belt,” the report says.

Pieces of meat were also found on the frame of a brine tank in the curing room, and meat and dirt were stuck to a broken stuffing machine in the kitchen.

The federal food inspectors’ union found the infractions troubling.

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